Friday, November 19, 2010

At the Core: How the Premise Ties the Plot Together

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I was lying in bed one morning, thinking about the chapter I planned to work on today, and trying to tie together two important elements of the story so they worked smoothly with the plot.Then it hit me.

They both contained aspects of the premise.

Which probably doesn't explain much yet, because lots of the book is going to contain parts of the premise. But this also caused me to realize something else.

There's a premise conflict, same as a core conflict.

This was the big wow moment. Because I realized that the premise conflict could be a fantastic way to help develop and manage your subplots.

The premise conflict is the problem that is very likely the major strife in the world that you've created. Your core conflict will be part of it, caused by it most likely, tied to it definitely, but it's not what's driving your protag. It is, however, probably sticking its fingers into pretty much everything else.

In The Shifter, my premise is a girl who can pain shift has to save her sister and inadvertently gets pulled into a much bigger conflict involving the setting/world building of the book. (I'm being vague here so as not to spoil the story for anyone). The external core conflict is Nya trying to save her sister. The internal core conflict is Nya trying to decide how far morally she'll go to do that. The premise conflict is how that bigger issue affects her and the choices she makes. Because those choices will ultimately lead her to the war in the final book, and put her on the path to her role in that war.  The final book resolves that premise conflict. The war that caused all the world problems in the first place and put Nya in the middle of all this trouble. (Still with me?)

Look at your own story. There's probably a bigger picture, general premise idea that first got you interested in writing that story. It may even have caused you plotting troubles before, because all you had was a premise novel for a while. You knew the big problem, but not the individual "protag with a problem" plot part of it. It might even be what you tell folks when they ask what the book is about.

Your plot fits into that, because that premise somehow caused a problem your protag has to solve. But odds are, it's also causing other troubles in a general sense. Inherent conflicts in the world, problems on a maco scale. While your protag's problem is personal and unique to them, your premise conflict affects everyone. You might even already have subplots that illustrate those problems, and maybe some that you don't know what to do with.

My problem this morning was trying to connect the ongoing themes of racial strife and family to one of the core goals driving Nya in the story. Both themes are important and both involved subplots of their own in the first draft. But there are too many subplots in the book and I need to trim some out so I'm not yanking Nya all over the place with no clear goal (which would make the reader feel like the book had no direction and wandered pointlessly) As much as I like those subplots, they're taking up too much book time and Nya is losing focus. Resolving those issues are important to Nya's growth as a character, but not to the plot. I needed to make them important to the plot, so Nya had to solve them (thus growing as a character, and acting in ways that advanced the plot where it needed to go). 

And so came my epiphany. Racial strife and family are also elements of the premise. It's a war between two people who hate each other. Families were destroyed because of it. Both problems exist due to the overall premise, which will need to be resolved by the end of the series. Resolving that ultimately has to become Nya's goal, so why not let those elements become a subplot that is one of the steps to get her to that goal?

And suddenly everything fell into place.Multiple subplots collapsed into one, and that one subplot became an important step to the resolving the core conflict, both internal and external. Even better, it worked for the premise conflict, too.

At first, I thought maybe this only worked because it's a series with a larger issue that covered three books. But I looked at my stand alone YA fantasy in the works, and it fits there too. There's a larger premise issue that the core conflict comes from, and solving that core conflict puts my protag on the path to resolving that premise problem. But the goal driving the protag isn't to solve the premise problem, it's to solve the personal goal that makes up the core conflict of the book. I know where my subplots for that book are going to come from now.

The premise can play a larger role in our stories, just not the way we sometimes think. It may not be the thing directly forcing our protags to act, but it is causing the situation to be what it is. If we draw from that, use those larger issues to develop subplots that nudge our protags where we need them to go, then by the time they resolve that personal issue, they're be right there to resolve that premise issue. Which is probably where we wanted them to be all along.

So, what do you guys think? Am I on to something here?


  1. Yep. That would be my take on it; works for the Varin books. Great epiphany, Janice!

  2. This is fantastic! Another great post to consider reviewing my outline--thank you!!!!! :D

  3. I feel like I'm getting bits and pieces of this, but not grasping the big picture. Maybe when book three comes out I'll be able to put it all together. :)

  4. You are totally onto something! You actually gave me an epiphany too! Thanks. :)

  5. This is such a great post. Good job!

  6. Juliette: Oh cool, if you agree, I know I'm on to something :)

    Lbdiamond: Most welcome!

    Joe: This is still a new concept to me, too, so many I'll be able to explain it better after it simmers. And I'm over this cold. I'll see if I can find a practical way to apply it for next week's FYPF post.

    Shallee: Awesome!

    Thetitanproject: Thanks!

  7. Some good information here and things to think about. Thanks for the post.:)

  8. Yes I think you have a handle on something big- and you are giving good advice to us. yay!

  9. Definitely - and getting all those to line up is no small trick. Sometimes I feel like I have all those elements, but making sure they happen at the right times can be difficult. :)

  10. Regina: Most welcome!

    Summer: I'll keep playing with this and see if I can get something more helpful out of it.

    Susan: I have so many instances in a revision where the light bulb goes off and I can fix something by changing one little thing around. But I needed to write all those elements before I could see how they connected.

  11. So basically, you are filtering your subplots through a lens which traces their source in the overarching premise of the story/series and follows their resolution in terms relevant to the resolution of the premise. It's wonderful and likely an element of succesful novels which we all seek as readers, though until now it has not been articulated in any clear manner.
    Thank you so much. I plan to apply the filter to my current revision process for my WIP!

    1. Wonderful summation :) That's exactly right. Good luck with your filters!